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30 March 2022

Reviewed in short: New books by Fernanda Melchor, Francis Young, Colin Barrett and Symeon Brown

Paradais by Melchor, Magic in Merlin's Realm by Young, Homesickness by Barrett and Get Rich or Lie Trying by Brown.

By Lola Seaton, Michael Prodger, Tom Gatti and Ellys Woodhouse

Paradais by Fernanda Melchor, trs by Sophie Hughes
Fitzcarraldo Editions, 118pp, £10.99

“Onslaught of horror and squalor”, “sensory bludgeoning”, “assaultive flood”: these are the terms reviewers have reached for to characterise Fernanda Melchor’s prose, rendered into brutal, vivid English by Sophie Hughes. Like her 2020 English-language debut Hurricane Season, Paradais is set in an impoverished Mexican village and covers the same macabre terrain (rape, incest, murder). One new element is proximity to wealth in the form of a luxury residential development (“Paradise”), where Polo, 16, works as a gardener. A desolate, listless school dropout, Polo forms a bleak alliance with one of Paradise’s residents, the porn-addled “fatboy” who funds drinking sessions that briefly dull Polo’s furious hopelessness.

Whereas Hurricane Season opens with the corpse, the leaner Paradais presses towards calamity. But Melchor’s sui generis prose is equally mesmeric here. Disfigured by slang and profanity, her unruly sentences probe the boundary between the graphic and the pornographic. Like the harsh cãna Polo downs, it demands unshrinking imbibement, brooking no pause to reflect on its mechanics or to indulge uneasy doubts about whether the qualities that rivet you are purely literary ones.
By Lola Seaton

Magic in Merlin’s Realm: A History of Occult Politics in Britain by Francis Young
Cambridge University Press, 406pp, £29.99

In the first century BC, Pliny the Elder reported that the British were addicted to magic, and this habit, which persisted for centuries, is the subject of Francis Young’s revelatory book. In it he shows how closely politics and the occult have been intertwined in these islands: today, government ministers have a cohort of Spads to whisper in their ear; in the past our rulers often had magicians.

Richard II thought of himself as a magus, while John Dee and Elias Ashmole cast themselves as latter-day Merlins as they advised Elizabeth I and Charles II respectively. But monarchs also had cause to fear magic – rumours of supernatural malignity were rife in the downfall of Anne Boleyn, and Elizabeth’s advisers were profoundly spooked by the discovery in Islington of wax effigies of the Queen and the earls of Salisbury and Leicester. Whisperings of illicit love potions swirled around the court of James I, and Charles II invoked royal magic powers in his attempts to secure the Restoration. Although the ties between politics and occultism were unbound with the Witchcraft Act of 1735, Young argues that politicians are still prey to less literal forms of magical thinking.
By Michael Prodger

Homesickness by Colin Barrett
Jonathan Cape, 224pp, £14.99

Colin Barrett is a patient soul: he has taken eight years to gather the eight stories that make up his second book. For the reader, it has been worth the wait. The fictional “Glanbeigh” of his debut Young Skins has ceded ground to the real towns of County Mayo, but the west of Ireland remains Barrett’s setting and subject in all but one of the stories. The local colour is plentiful: a vigilante shooting on a farm; a samurai sword unsheathed in a bar; a failing poet buying weed from his convent-schoolgirl dealer. But this is not a small-town circus show: Barrett’s Mayo is a place of arrival and departure, healing and decay, and his scenes can open up into existential questions and emotional truths. Then there’s the eye- and ear-catching prose: strong men breathing “coltishly through their noses”; a “racing, paper-thin beat” escaping from an earbud; the River Moy “dark as stout and in murderous spate”.

“The world is full of unaccountable things, if you’re keeping track,” says a woman to her daughter, before tossing her sandwich to the gulls. Keeping track is the writer’s job, and few do it as well as Colin Barrett.
By Tom Gatti

Get Rich or Lie Trying: Ambition and Deceit in the New Influencer Economy by Symeon Brown
Atlantic Books, 304pp, £16.99

Ebenezer “Ebz” Lembe lives in Hollywood and works as an “IRL streamer”: he records his daily life as viewers pay him tips to endure their regular racial abuse. He is one of the “winners and losers of the internet” we encounter in Symeon Brown’s first book. For Brown, Ebz’s performance for his followers of mostly young white men is “the digital equivalent of a modern day minstrel show, where he shucks and jives for a dollar”. “Every job is shucking and jiving,” Ebz protests.

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In this meticulously researched book, Brown, a Channel 4 journalist, exposes the dishonesty that drives the influencer economy. Each chapter examines a sector of the online economy, from sex workers to cryptocurrency traders. Brown churns through his case studies at the kind of pace he criticises social media for encouraging, and disappointingly he returns to the same conclusion again and again: “It’s difficult to hate the player when the game is fixed and we are all playing it in one way or another.” Social media has simply reinvented an old, exploitative model of work: one that targets the most precarious.
By Ellys Woodhouse

[See also: Literature under Xi Jinping]

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This article appears in the 30 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The New Iron Curtain